5 team-building tips from a former Green Beret

Green Berets are known as “the quiet professionals.” Their operations are designed to be done in secret, and for their work to go largely unnoticed and unrecognized. To operate this way takes a great deal of planning, cooperation, and, teamwork.

The core capabilities of this elite breed of soldier is not what most would initially assume. Yes, they are physically strong and highly skilled with weapons and other conventional means of warfare, but more than that, they have a high degree of emotional intelligence and are great at training partner forces and building rapport.

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In fact, that’s what Special Forces was designed to do – and they are flawless at executing as a cohesive team.

Green Beret team-building tip No. 1: Cross-train

Every Special Forces team, or ODA (Operational Detachment Alphas), is made up of individual team members, all of whom have a very specific function to perform – including, communications (18E), engineering (18C) and operations and intelligence (18F), to name a few. Everyone is multi-lingual and cross-trained in each other’s specialty in order to be able to operate no matter how the mission unfolds, or however circumstances may change.

“Good teams train everyone in everyone else’s roles,” said medically retired Green Beret and CommonGenius expert Patrick Gaumond. “If without John, Jim or Jane doing ‘X’ the whole thing crumbles, then you’ve identified a problem.”

Gaumond remembers the Assistant Operations and Intelligence Sergeant (18F) in one of his five deployments having to go home to take care of a family matter. At the time Gaumond was the Engineer Sergeant (18C) with an interest in intel. And luckily, he had already been cross-trained. And because he had been cross-trained in these functions and worked closely with his teammate, Gaumond was able to quickly assume the extra responsibilities without significantly hindering the mission or impacting the team.

“Life happens to everybody,” said Gaumond. “And we don’t live in a world with endless replacements. Cross-training builds better teams, period.”

On how this translates to business, Gaumond added, “It’s no longer the day of low-skill factory workers. We have a service-based economy built on brainpower, not manual labor. It’s important to have cross-functional teams wherever possible. Contingency planning is not optional.”

Green Beret team-building tip No. 2: Give feedback

In addition to supervisor feedback, Green Berets are also assessed on a peer-to-peer basis – starting first when they try out at “selection,” continuing throughout the qualification course (or, Q-course) and lasting the duration of their careers.

After Action Reports (AARs) are created through a structured review process and are used for debriefing purposes. After every action, there is an analysis of what happened, why it happened and how it can be done better in the future. This means feedback, and improvement, are continuous.

“Reviewing in real-time versus waiting for quarterly business reviews means everyone’s already talked about what happened and there are less surprises,” said Gaumond. “In all things, but most especially missions conducted in high-risk, low-support environments, the fewer surprises the better. It’s why we go to great lengths to plan.”

Gaumond added that the Special Forces peer review process naturally builds honesty into the team dynamic – a critical ingredient to successfully building an inter-dependent team.

“We’re solutioning, not criticizing,” said Gaumond. “Coming to the table with a solution, not just a problem, is equally as important in the civilian sector as it is in the military.”

Green Beret team-building tip No. 3: Empower decision-making

“In the special operations community, a wrong decision is leagues better than no decision at all,” said Gaumond. “If you do nothing, you can’t learn from it except to know that you should have done something.”

Empowering team members to make decisions, even when they’re not the right decisions or the best decisions, results in a critical hands-on learning experience. Gaumond advises, depending on the size and the scope of a ‘bad’ decision, to allow someone to go out and fail if it means building wisdom, which benefits the team as a whole.

“If you’re terrified of making a mistake, then you’re probably not going to make decisions, ever,” said Gaumond. “But mistakes don’t become problems until you turn them into habits. Taking initiative and not getting it exactly right is a win in our creed.”

Green Beret team-building tip No. 4: Make good use of the past

“You can’t mass produce special operations soldiers just like you can’t mass produce specialized talent. There is a wide array of people coming from different educational backgrounds, with varying skill levels and experience. Rather than distance people from what they used to do, effective teams take someone’s previous experiences and find ways to hone them to the benefit of the current mission or job,” said Gaumond.

When it comes to assessing team members, Gaumond cautions against educational profiling.

“You can have a background in a general field of study, but that doesn’t gauge aptitude,” said Gaumond, who holds an associate degree and is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Business from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. “There’s a lot to be said for common sense and having the wherewithal to know how to apply it.”

Gaumond recounted the various minimum requirements to try out for Special Forces, but that once a soldier makes it, there is no glass ceiling.

“Team members are assessed on the intangibles, not their resumes, and I think more businesses would benefit from doing the same,” said Gaumond. “It’s important to look at the whole person and what they bring to the team. Past experiences, ‘non-relevant,’ and all.”

Green Beret team-building tip No. 5: Build relationships, not checklists

“ ‘Mandatory Fun Days’ do not translate into ‘you care about me,’ ” says Gaumond. “The way to build a cohesive team is by actually caring, which takes time to bear fruit. The results of these actions are much more telling than any one, two or three events.”

“Happy hours don’t mean much if management, the rest of the time, is divested from the rest of the team,” continued Gaumond. “People make the mistake by thinking that as the leader they need to be best friends with their team members. But like military rank, there is still a corporate hierarchy that needs to be respected in order for it to be effective. There are plenty of ways to genuinely put yourself out there and garner trust.”

“If people don’t feel like you have their growth or best interests in mind, it creates an impasse that no number of BBQs or happy hours are going to harmonize,” said Gaumond. “To build a good team, start first by modeling what a good member of that team should be, and show them that you care.”

Brittney is the founder and lead consultant at BMUR Branding Group, LLC. She helps companies tell their story through a combination of brand conceptualization, creation, and management, content writing and strategy, marketing and public relations. Prior to founding BMUR, Brittney worked for Randstad and Robert Half, two of the largest staffing and recruiting companies in the world. To keep in touch with Brittney, connect with her on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter or email.

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